It Takes A Community
On Thursday April 7th 2016, a small group of students including myself, along with Imma Vitelli, a journalist for Vanity Fair Italia sat around an opulent varnished table at New York University's (NYU) Villa Sassetti with Fadi Ghandour and Samar Dudin in Florence, Italy.
The small courtly dining room I found myself in had ceased to exist as its intended purpose, for we weren’t at all interrupted by 21st century aristocrats awaiting their servants for supper. Instead, there still seemed to be an air of awkward intimacy, though now it was because hierarchical boundaries were deconstructed into social equivalence between the two guest speakers, professors, students and even the camera man in the back left corner. In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect from this upcoming Dialogue. All I knew was that Fadi Ghandour happened to be the founder of Aramex, and also the developer of Ruwwad Al-Tanmeya (Ruwwad), a non-profit community empowerment initiative.
An hour later, I found myself utterly speechless, shaken or whatever possible turn of phrase that might articulate the tingling peach fuzz on my face, for once age or class was no longer an excuse, I felt young, naive and immature. The lacquered mahogany table had since transformed itself into a terrain of projected desires and proposed solutions for sustainable development from the minds of the aspiring youth. I was reminded about the importance of social responsibility, sustainable aid, and finding creative solutions towards less fortunate communities. I found myself in sheer awe of Ruwwad and its founding parents. Fadi Ghandour and Samar Dudin had in my eyes, revolutionised sustainable community development and the only thing I could think about was, “Where do I start as a twenty-year-old?”
Fadi Ghandour is a billionaire. He is undoubtedly part of what we would call the ‘elite’, or, as Bernie Sander’s would say, part of the world’s “top one-percent”. And, yes, it is easy to assess and justify the merit of our world’s business leaders by quantifying their charitable donations, though is this really the right way to measure their contributions to alleviating the persisting existence of underdeveloped communities, impoverished individuals, and the absurd distribution of wealth? Rather than counting numbers, is it not their minds we should tap into? Is it not their ability to think and their curious ways of thought, channelled towards the development of disenfranchised societies that should be the rational of our judgements?
Fadi, who is originally from Beirut, Lebanon sincerely believed in the true definition of democracy. He seemed to speak to a group of university students as he might have done to Barack Obama, to the servants of the aristocrats waiting to set up the ivory for supper, and to the needful children of Jabal Al Natheef in Jordan. I found his honest passion for the importance of social responsibility and community development particularly riveting, and it seemed transparent in his speech. Fadi recognised that every single person in that room had something just as precious and valuable to offer to the world as he does.
The Ruwwad development organisation helps disadvantaged communities in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon to overcome community challenges through youth organisation, child development, and community support. Fadi soon handed it over to Samar Dudin, the Regional Director and Head of Programs at Ruwwad to share the details about the work of Ruwwad.
Samar was a softly spoken lady, with a certain warmth that could have had the entire population of Ruwwad’s program call her their mother. She possessed a sense of gentle benevolence, where I could see an innate concern and care in finding the potential of youth, and of a community. She is one of the pioneers of Drama and Theatre in Education in Jordan and has been a cultural activist since the 1990s, while holding positions in numerous boards of child and women empowerment programs and educational programs. Samar and Fadi couldn’t have been any more different in their mannerisms, though they complemented each other in the most remarkable way. Both of them recognized that the challenges of young people, who make up 65 to 75% of the population in these countries, should not be left for governments and politicians to address, for they are the next generation of thinkers and leaders. It is instead a social responsibility of all, particularly those involved in the private sector.
Ruwwad’s story begins in Jabal Al Natheef, a small community in the outskirts of eastern Amman, Jordan. It is the home to the Mohammad Amin Camp, an informal Palestinian refugee site with an estimated population of 54,000 people. Jabal Al Natheef faces many challenges, such as high rates of youth unemployment, high illiteracy rates, an absence of community services and minimal educational access. Moreover, the community at Jabal Al Natheef faces poor family support structures, domestic violence and tough housing conditions. Ruwwad’s work began with the simple idea of philanthropy where they renovated the local public school, built community centres, a police station and provided other community needs. Though mere charity and donations isn’t sustainable economically nor is it sustainable socially in the long run. What makes Ruwwad unique is the the internalisation of aid both geographically and socially, where aid operates internally. With the aim of investing in relationships and connecting values, community discussions encourage critical thought and expression as well as a dialogue between the young and old. In countries where politics and religion appears synonymous, Ruwwad stresses their political and religious independence, encouraging individuals to suspend judgment and hearsay, and instead motivate inquiry based learning.
The Mousab Khorma Youth Education and Empowerment Fund provides scholars with the funds to attend university and vocational training at leading universities in the region. Unlike your usual merit-based scholarship, students are given the opportunity to attend higher-level education on the basis of contributing four-hours of weekly community service, channelled towards the development of their own community. The aspects of community service include child development programs, youth organisation and community support. This incredible model creates engaging activism within the community, and thus forms a two-way relationship where both students and their community benefit. In addition, it allows for the younger generation to take pride in their cultural identity, even though they share struggles. The youth that Ruwwad empowers are the root of their culture and communities. They have gone through the mainstream education system and in many ways, have grown up united in a challenging environment.
I am from Malaysia, where I attended a private international school for my most formative years, and later moved to an independent boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Until I moved to New York at the age of eighteen, I had been immersed in a social milieu that was largely elitist. When I heard Samar talk about young people like me as being “inauthentic”, my eyes peeled back in a state of perturbation, as if someone had interrupted the discussion to whisper the most tragic news into my left ear. Samar spoke about how the individuals who have been raised to think of themselves as being ‘privileged’ are not the fundamental drivers of a successful democracy. They are, in many ways, unequipped to stimulate growth and development regardless of their privileged education. For even though they might be agile in their thinking and possess various global perspectives on issues of development, they do in a sense merely provide an ‘outsiders perspective’ similar to foreign aid organisations, such as the International Red Cross, or the United Nations.
I myself had adopted the mind-set that because of my privileged education and economic situation, I was intellectually above the average members of society. I have found myself subconsciously looking down on people who live in Kampungs (Slums) just outside our capital city for their education being subject to religious hearsay and quite simply, for having provincial opinions. As I look back, I am horrified to remember a number of social occasions where I participated in imitating the mannerisms of the less privileged, as if they lacked any value. At the time, it seemed nothing but the norm when in reality, we were the ones who had lost a sense of cultural identity and failed to recognise cultural capital as an unparalleled resource. I have begun to realise that my privilege was really an illusion; an illusion that is the product of my education and social milieu. Such is the hypocrisy was my thought and the misconception of privilege. Such is the illusion of wealth, when in fact I am less aware of my own culture than the vast majority of individuals from my own country.
The Ruwwad development program shows that it is ordinary people who are the foundation of a successful society. The role of the elite is misguided; for rather than feeling the need to shine enlightenment and knowledge to the underprivileged people, it is a synergy between social classes that should be formed. Instead, it is the responsibility of the privileged to bridge such a gap and formulate a dialogue between societies – Where the privileged can help develop the less privileged communities, and the less privileged can develop the privileged. Fadi Ghadour and Samar Dudin are doing exactly that through Ruwwad. It is time we all remember the importance of our roots and our culture, for we must redefine what inequality means and contribute to fostering the kind of exchanges that Ruwwad promotes.
Read more about Ruwwad-Al Tanmeya here.